Source of Dingspiration: Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

So my boss’s boss’s boss is all about this book Essentialism. Like, allllll about it. He gave out hundreds of copies at our last department meeting. And of course, when your boss’s boss’s boss gives you a book, you read it. Or at least, you pretend to read it. Then you enthusiastically whiteboard the children’s drawing of circles and arrows from page 6 in the middle of as many meetings possible while dropping the e-bomb like nobody’s business. (E-bomb being ‘Essentialism’ if you weren’t up with the lingo.)

But… putting this stuff into action? Actually BEING an essentialist? Mastering the art of doing less? Like, IRL? That’s an entirely different story. Instead of telling you I solved world peace and am essentially (haha) the perfect employee, I’ll keep it real and share my experience with the small steps I have taken over the past month.

I like to think I get shit done. (At work, at least. I’ll leave my personal life separate as its own special whirlwind of chaos; we can get to that later.) I had been operating as a one-woman team for so long at work, I knew the crash and burn of stretching myself too thin and tackling too many things at once. I had a system. When I worked on any new strategy, I’d ask myself, If I could do just one more thing, what would it be?

In reality, a focused strategy is just one part of the equation. Here’s where I share the story for how I realized the way I get work done is just as crucial as my best intentions. 

It was one of those days. You know, where at the end, you’re slouching exhausted in your chair, eyes closed head pounding, head spinning wondering how the hell you got to this place. We had just had a particularly contentious meeting with multiple big personalities; emotions had run high, and somehow by the end, tears were shed.

My boss pulled me aside and said, Your team’s spending a LOT of time debating about things that don’t matter, when you should be spending your time on the most important things. In that moment I time traveled back to something my VP had said to me in passing – imagine sage voice – Your time is your most valuable asset. (They probably don’t know that I regularly quote them. It’s not my fault. They’re totally wise people.)

BOOM. You’re spending a ton of time on things that straight up don’t matter. AND time is your most valuable asset. Assuming you live a cushy life like me and are not worrying about Maslow’s basics like how to feed yourself or put a roof over your head. Check, check, check – major reality check.

We’ve done the fun little intro to build drama and suspense, so now I’ll introduce a more grounded problem statement.

We live in a digital world, we work across multiple locations, and people freaking loooove sending email. We get these little pop ups in the lower right corner of our computer screen, and it’s practically impossible to resist clicking on them to open whatever new emails have come in. It’s like a sick reflex – pop up appears, finger clicks – or like Sleeping Beauty being drawn to the poisonous needle and pricking her finger even while we were all like Nooo don’t do that Sleeping Beauty. Once you click on that email, it’s practically impossible to resist replying with lightning speed, check the box, and feel like you accomplished something in that moment. I’m sure I don’t need to describe this situation to you. In reality, we should be asking if that reply was (a) important compared to what we could be doing at that time and (b) truly the most effective way to resolve that email, versus talking in person or waiting. We reply to each other without bothering to make human contact, causing added swirl, reduced productivity, all the while feeling like we are doing the productive thing.

Some lovely e-bomb friends and I took this problem statement, and prototyped an email triage system we cleverly coined Mo’ Email Mo’ Problems. It’s pretty much how it sounds – a system to stem the uncontrollable, blood-spurting-from-fatal-wounds-onto-the-linoleum-floor, bleeding that is email at work.

We made some rules for email.

  • We set finite time increments throughout the day during which we check email
  • During that time we sort the email into buckets of urgency so we know if we need to take action sooner or later during our work time
  • We keep ourselves honest by keeping track of the cumulative time we spend checking email, with the goal being no more than one hour in any given day
  • During non-email times, we turn off all email notifications shut down our inbox
  • We tell anyone we deem important to IM us if they need us, cause I’m sorry I just won’t be reachable via email

It’s been a little over 4 weeks now that I’ve been living in the new world of less email. And it’s amazing. You know how they market miracle drugs and there’s a whole laundry list of gross sounding side effects? Well, new world of less email? Miracle drug with no side effects.

I found that my head has more room to THINK. And I love it. I can’t tell you that every thought my head has is golden, but hey. It’s getting used to this newfound freedom. It’s no longer bogged down and cluttered by all the distraction that is email and it’s running around like a little kid on Halloween candy. I’m more present in meetings, I communicate more effectively, I’m more focused overall.

If you’re a quant person, I now spend less than 10 minutes checking email each day, and on the flip side have sent only 3 emails in the past 3 days. You’re welcome, potential email recipients!

Furthermore, this email triage system has naturally led me to…

  • Question when I’m about to send an email – should I instead IM this person, call him, take a note and save it for then I talk to them next?
  • Try laptops down period. So I’m truly present during most of my meetings
  • Take handwritten notes in a notebook instead of typed ones on Microsoft OneNote. It forces me to process the situation and take down the most important thing, because I physically can’t write fast enough. Typing devolves into a plethera of extraneous information I never look back on
  • Establish ‘me’ time at the beginning of each day to outline goals for that day and main points I want to convey to people I will interact with
  • Reset my progress and focus once a week, for 2 hours in a different space
  • Build stronger relationships with my teammates. Which makes me happy because I’m an extrovert, and let’s say it makes me more effective too

Email is addictive. It feels like it’s good for you, but I’ll put it out there – it’s not. And this is just the beginning! I’ll keep you posted.

Food for thought before I peace out because I’ve written myself into a hunger monster and my fingers won’t go on, Why It’s So Easy to Ignore Your To-Do List App but Get Distracted by Twitter.


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